The city of Castle Hills is accused of “physically blocking” a duly elected councilwoman from her seat at a recent meeting, in the latest twist in an ongoing suburban power struggle.
Mayor JR Treviño disputes that claim, saying the city has followed the law.
“It’s not like a decision was made here in-house,” to oust Sylvia Gonzalez, Treviño said prior to a council meeting Wednesday night.
Gonzalez, who was elected May 4, had her seat declared vacant by the city attorney in consultation with state authorities because she failed to take a proper oath of office within 30 days of her election as required by law. Gonzalez and two other council members filed a lawsuit seeking to keep Gonzalez on the council.
The lawsuit was amended this week to accuse the city of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act because it allowed former council member Amy McLin to sit in Gonzalez’s Place 3 council seat at the last regular council meeting.
When Gonzalez, 72, arrived at the Aug. 13 meeting, McLin, 46, was already seated on the council dais.
“Alderwoman Gonzalez is over 70 years of age and had no choice but to sit in the audience while Amy McLin sat in her seat on the dais,” the amended petition states.
On ExpressNews.com: Castle Hills residents sue to remove council members
At that Aug. 13 meeting, the City Council voted 3-0 with two abstentions to conduct a special election Nov. 5 to replace Gonzalez and Alderman Clyde McCormick, who is stepping down for health reasons. The council also named McLin, whom Gonzalez defeated in May, to fill the Place 3 seat until November.
Art Martínez de Vara, the lawyer for Gonzalez and the others, said he is seeking a court order to return Gonzalez to Place 3 and invalidate the Nov. 5 election for Place 3.
Martínez de Vara said the July 18 arrests of Gonzalez and Alderwoman Lesley Wenger, 77, on tampering charges are a symptom of a desperate battle for control. A former mayor of Von Ormy in southern Bexar County who has worked with several suburban cities, the attorney said the situation in Castle Hills is one of the worst he has encountered among local disputes.
“This is probably the most extreme that I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The criminal charges against Wenger and Gonzalez were dismissed last week.
Based on evidence gathered by Castle Hills police, Wenger had been charged with tampering with evidence and fraudulent possession of identification information, allegedly taken from City Manager Ryan Rapelye’s personnel file. The Bexar County district attorney’s office found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the charges.
The DA’s office also determined that a charge against Gonzalez of tampering with a government document needed further investigation, suggesting it could be refiled at a later date. Gonzalez was accused of taking petitions from the mayor’s place on the council dais and attempting to alter them.
Those petitions seek the removal of the city manager.
Treviño has been a staunch supporter of Rapelye, while Wenger has openly sought his resignation or termination. Castle Hills insiders say there are concerns about the petitions, since at least 30 signatures, among a few hundred, appear questionable. Some residents said they were asked to sign in support of city street repairs and weren’t told it was to remove Rapelye.
The city, meanwhile, spent about $16,000 last month fighting Gonzalez’s lawsuit.
“It is not nearly over, and instead seems to be getting uglier,” said one resident close to the municipal drama.
The deadline to file for the special council election is Sept. 4, just days away. Lawyer Kurt May is running for Place 3, beckoning residents on Twitter to “join our campaign as we move to make a city government that works for all.”
But Martinez de Vara insists Gonzalez is the Place 3 officeholder, elected to serve through May 2021.
On ExpressNews.com: Castle Hills sets special election to fill controversial vacant seat
At the Aug. 13 meeting, City Attorney Mark Schnall advised the council that Gonzalez was no longer qualified to serve, based on consultation with the secretary of state’s office and Texas Municipal League, because she had not been properly sworn in within 30 days of the election. Her oath was administered May 14 by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who was not qualified to swear her in under Texas law, Schnall said.
Martínez de Vara countered in an interview Wednesday that Gonzalez should have been allowed to take her seat on Aug. 13, because she was elected by residents and took an oath — regardless of who administered it. He said the city didn’t raise concerns about Salazar’s participation in Gonzalez’s oath until mid-July.
Another pending Castle Hill lawsuit filed on behalf of six residents seeks to have Wenger and Gonzalez removed from office, accusing them of incompetency and official misconduct. But Martínez de Vara said differing views on the city manager’s performance do not constitute “gross misconduct” that would justify removal.
In a response filed last week to the residents’ lawsuit, Martínez de Vara requested that the suit be thrown out. He said Wenger and Gonzalez are immune from being sued because the plaintiffs did not obtain a judge’s ruling that their immunity was waived.
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Paul Barkhurst, the lawyer representing the residents, dismissed Martínez de Vara’s arguments as “spurious.”
“We have fashioned our suit exactly how the Local Government Code dictates; accordingly, there is jurisdiction and there is no immunity for these erstwhile or putative public officials,” Barkhurst said in an email.
In contrast to the heated legal wrangling, the council’s Wednesday night meeting focused on the proposed budget for next year and a hearing on the proposed tax rate — 50.1 cents per $100 valuation, unchanged from the current rate. There was no public comment and only a handful of people were in the audience.
Neither Wenger nor Gonzalez were at the meeting.
Scott Huddleston covers Bexar County government and the Alamo for the San Antonio Express-News. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | [email protected] | Twitter: @shuddlestonSA